Heather Pringle's The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust

"Who controls the past”¦controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."

By the time George Orwell published this piercing insight into totalitarianism, in 1949, Heinrich Himmler had been dead four years. But Himmler, the founder and leader of Nazi Germany's infamous SS, had known it in his bones.

The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust (Viking Canada, $35), the gripping new book by Vancouver author Heather Pringle, lays out the long-overlooked history of the Ahnenerbe, a research institute Himmler set up in 1935 to advance his absurd but malevolent theories about race. At the centre of these ideas was his belief that the ancient ancestors of the German people had invented civilization in its entirety, thousands of years before the Egyptians or Mesopotamians. The quasi-divine "Aryans" then migrated across Europe, Africa, and Asia, spreading a kind of ruthless enlightenment that spawned not only classical Rome but also Buddhism and the samurai warriors of Japan.

The academics of the Ahnenerbe included historians, linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, and medical doctors. Many of them were internationally respected before they joined the SS. All became reliable brokers of Himmler's delusions. Looting the museums of conquered nations for supposedly Aryan artifacts was among their gentler pursuits. Indeed, they also laid the groundwork for genocide by reinforcing Nazi anti-Semitism with a bogus system of racial classification, much of it revolving around superficial physical traits such as skull and facial dimensions. Several Ahnenerbe researchers even put theory into practice by murdering concentration-camp prisoners in order to build a race-based inventory of human skeletons.

"It's obviously an extreme example of science gone bad," Pringle says in conversation with the Straight at a West Broadway café. "We like to think of science as this beacon of light representing truth and the best of human knowledge, but the point is that it's always made by human beings, and human beings are tremendously flawed. And then you have human beings who have a real political agenda that they're trying to advance. There's no reason why they wouldn't use science to advance it."

Still, the blatant nature of the Ahnenerbe's offences did little to simplify the four years of research that Pringle spent on The Master Plan. Scholarship on the subject has always been scarce. On top of that, Pringle-a science journalist and author of Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead-began her work with no proficiency in German, and so had to rely on a team of translators to help her through the reams of Ahnenerbe-related documents and letters. And even these native speakers struggled, she says.

"What I discovered as things went along is that so much of the language that the Nazis used was very specific, very euphemistic," she recalls, "so even people who were fluent speakers of German had a lot of trouble deciphering the documents.”¦You know how the Inuit have all these different words for snow? The Nazis had all these different words for theft, murder, torture. It was an incredibly rich and horrible vocabulary."

Perhaps the most telling challenge, however, came from piecing together the book's portraits of educated, bright, relatively ordinary citizens who easily accepted their role in mass brutality by "crossing over a line and never looking back", as Pringle puts it.

"These figures are still in my mind, in my imagination. I have trouble pushing them out of there," she says. "Generally, research on the Holocaust doesn't go so deeply into the perpetrators. It tends to look more at the victims. And what I found really difficult was that I was getting into the minds of those who provided the intellectual ballast, and who also were participating in a range of crimes. I couldn't just make them into unrecognizable monsters. I knew that they were real people."

A harrowing trip, but a necessary one. The closer that historical works like The Master Plan come to the truth, no matter how disturbing, the farther we are from societies of the kind Himmler wished to build, in which the past is shot through with dangerous, politically expedient fantasy. By showing the crimes of Nazi Germany as the work not of demons but of cultivated, mundane human beings, Pringle provides the best possible repudiation of Himmler's mythical, murderous Aryan gods.